VERMILLION — The ability to cope with unpredictable changes in the manner in which higher education was offered in the last year to many of the University of South Dakota students who received their degrees Saturday morning didn’t go unnoticed by USD President Sheila Gestring.
“You, the Class of 2021, have demonstrated incredible grace and patience during a very trying time,” she said during the university’s 134th Spring Commencement Ceremony held in the DakotaDome. “This past year may have brought about unexpected challenges, but you show that with determination, you can accomplish anything.
“You are remarkably resilient and that trait will serve you well in your lifetime.”
COVID-19 cases are on the decline nationwide and in South Dakota, thanks, in part, to the rollout of a new vaccine. But he pandemic is not over yet, as evidenced by the attendance changes USD enforced Saturday to protect individuals’ health and safety.
Attendance at Saturday’s ceremonies was limited to those with tickets. Family and friends who were unable to attend the ceremony were invited to watch a livestream in the Muenster University Center on campus or to view the livestream online.
The undergraduate ceremony was held at 9 a.m., and the graduate/professional ceremony was held at 3 p.m. Face coverings were required, extra space to accommodate physical distancing for both guests/family members attending in the stands and for graduates was provided and a maximum attendance of 2,700 at each ceremony was enforced.
“You’ve made a great decision, choosing a liberal arts education,” U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, the ceremony’s keynote speaker, told the graduates. “It is here that you’ve learned how to critically think. You’ve learned about the importance of facts and research. Man alive, does our world need that kind of problem solving approach, not just in your profession, but in our public square.”
Johnson graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and minors in business administration and history.
He was recently reelected to the U.S. House last November.
“I think we’ve all probably noticed that today’s politics are dominated too little by critical thinking, the facts and the evidence of your liberal arts education,” he said, “and are dominated too much by anger, fear and outrage.”
Johnson said we’ve all grown accustomed to a worsening sense of political meanness in today’s society, expressed especially through social media.
“I know it bothers you. It bothers so many Americans that look at that and just decide they don’t want anything to do with politics,” he said. “It’s so interesting that many on the right or the left who most claim to champion love or tolerance are the quickest to condemn or to cast out those voices different from their own.”
Johnson said people too often view those who disagree with them as enemies.
“That, of course, does not serve our country well,” he said. “Anger is a powerful, short-term motivator. I suspect that’s why so many politicians use it. But anger is not a good foundation for marriages or communities, businesses, careers — anger is not an abiding benefit.”
Johnson asked the graduates to look back at their educational experiences at USD.
“There’s not one class period where you solved a difficult assignment because of outrage,” he said. “Graduates, if you believe, as I do, that politics must be more about addition and multiplication than about subtraction and division, I hope you will use the considerable problem-solving and critical thinking skills you developed here to be engaged, not enraged.”
Johnson admitted “I am not without sin in this arena,” but offered thoughts to graduates to help them “rise to the occasion.
“Provide the benefit of the doubt. We are told that marriages fail when couples stop giving one another the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know about you, but I’d like our country to stay together for a while longer yet, even if just for the kids,” he said. “That means we have to give our countrymen, our countrywomen the benefit of the doubt. We can’t assume that they are motivated by racism or fascism or communism or some other evil ‘ism.’
“We should begin our analysis by providing them the benefit that they are good people,” Johnson said, “who simply view an issue differently than we do.”
He urged the Class of 2021 to subscribe to reliable news sources.
“Free news, the kind that is so easily shared across Facebook, preys upon our fear and outrage,” Johnson said. “Instead, find two professional news sources, pay for their content and consume it regularly. Be wary, graduates — if you discover that you are only being told those things that you already believe, you are paying for propaganda, not news.”
People should try to evaluate the merits of an argument rather than the imperfections of its messenger, he said.
“Flawed people have good ideas. In fact, flawed people are the only kind as anyone who has ever been to Carey’s after midnight can attest,” Johnson said.
He noted that he’s not a perfect model of all the behaviors that he suggested the graduates follow.
“I know someone who is pretty darn close and he teaches at the University of South Dakota,” Johnson said. “He is a great citizen, he is a great American, he loves this country, he cares about society, he inspires good citizenship and he does all these things, seemingly, without a negative or a mean bone in his body.”
He was describing Dr. Mike Roche, a professor of criminal justice in USD’s Political Science Department who was among faculty members singled out in the audience that morning because they are retiring from their teaching positions at the university.
Johnson said the “Spirit of South Dakota” award had been created to celebrate the best citizens of the state.
“The first ever recipient of this award is the exceptional professor, the exceptional citizen I just described to you,” he said.
Johnson asked Roche to stand and be recognized as the inaugural recipient of the award. The DakotaDome was filled with applause to honor the professor.
“For more than 45 years, he has taught so many of us about justice, about compassion, about being a decent human being, about building a better society,” he said.
Johnson told the graduates they’ve been given the chance to improve not only their professions, but also the nation’s politics.
“For the sake of the greatest nation in the world, I hope you do,” he said.